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‘Death of Marilyn Monroe’ by Sharon Olds

The poem 'Death of Marilyn Monroe' by Sharon Olds is centered on the themes of aging, individuality, and fame, with elements of 'nudity' implicit in the reader's imagination. This piece, with its emphasis on nudity, employs dramatic representation as a style to depict the experience of three paramedics with the corpse of Marilyn Monroe, a former star. According to the persona accounts, the paramedics are unable to cope with the reality that they are preparing and moving the corpse of this well-known individual. This essay uses lens analysis to vividly understand the various aspects of nudity in the understanding of other persons who have contributed to the world of literature in different perspectives. Through a comparative analysis, the analysis seeks to determine whether or not nudity as implied in ‘Death of Marilyn Monroe’ stands any significance as could have been understood by a different person who dwells on the same theme in other works of art.

John Berger in ‘Ways of Seeing’ is an appropriate lens to be used in the analysis of ‘Death of Marilyn Monroe.’ Berger’s perspectives can be compared and contrasted to those of the persona in the poem. In his view, John Berger believes that seeing and recognition is the predecessor of words. In a nutshell, he states that we only express in terms of words or images, that which we have already seen. Furthermore, the book indicates that past experiences have an immense impact on perception of what is seen and the choice of words that might be used to describe the same. In essence, Berger questions the accuracy of words and images in properly depicting that the reality holds in reference to that which is seen and recognized by a person. In an attempt to illustrate the gender perspectives of nudity, John Berger sees the society to view the woman as an expression of the nude. In fact, he says “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object- and most particularly an object of vision: in sight’ (Berger 47). John Berger is concerned with how male chauvinism has driven the woman to the extent of exposing nudity with the intent of impressing the male. Though he does not give a judgmental take in reference to this, the author describes ways of seeing in an approach that criticizes the society indirectly.

In ‘Death of Marilyn Marlowe,’ the corpse belongs to the late celebrity, Marilyn Marlowe. The fact that the ambulance men seemed to be shocked at her death and ‘one did not like his work’ implies that the late celebrity must have been a very popular person. Being female, she must have handled herself in the same way that John Berger illustrates in his view of society’s ways of seeing. The paramedics in the poem are quick to note the ‘shape of her breasts.’ This must have been in comparison to her state while she was a live. John Berger argues that judgment of what is seen depends on previous experience. The ambulance men must have had an encounter with the celebrity, either in person or through various forms of media. Seeing her dead has a significant psychological torture on them.

According to Berger (46), ‘…how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated.’ According to this statement, and in relation to the works of art analyzed by John Berger, women tend to value the self. In spite of the fact that others might view their presentation as nudity, they have a purpose for showing up in unique ways, to appease the ‘surveyors,’ in this case the males. The ambulance men cannot live with the reality of death and the fact that the Marilyn Monroe lies dead. To one of the men, the encounter completely changes how he sees his own wife and kids. Even though this is a job they are trained in and they perform it daily, the case of Marilyn seems to weight low on their shoulders they cannot fully come to terms with the fact that she is dead. The men carried the corpse ‘…as if it were she…’ to imply that they still respected Marylyn’s expression of the self as a woman. In reference to John Berger’s explanation of what arts presents, the ambulance men seemingly believed that the late celebrity could have respected herself and be well-versioned in the presence of her fans and especially the men.

Monroe’s corpse is naked. Nudity and sexuality in the poem is centralized around this statement. It is interesting to note that this one incident seems to haunt the ambulance men to the extent that one takes a keen note of an ordinary woman breathing. This in essence implies a search for solace upon the experience from the death of Monroe. Berger states that the view or experience of new scenes can have an influence on a previous experience. In his view, ‘pictures immediately spring to mind to contradict this assertion’ (Berger, 87). Even though the ambulance men in ‘Death of Marilyn Monroe’ get visual and this seems to deepen their depression levels, the mere concentration of an ordinary woman breathing by one of the men is viewed as a source of consolation. The ambulance man concentrates on the breathing woman with a view to erasing the incident of death from this memory, at least for the time being. Sexuality is imminent in this context in that the sound of the person breathing is not male, and neither is the previous experience with the corpse.

In analyzing the concept or theme of nudity in the poem using John Berger as the lens, however, there are notable discrepancies. The self vividly described in the poem is of a corpse. Even though the ambulance men have a previous picture of the late celebrity in mind, the poem is based on the present experience. The corpse has no voice over how it looks. In fact, it is the ambulance men who ‘tried to close the mouth, closed the eyes’ (Goldstein 242) and even moved the body to be in the correct position. In this case, various aspects of Berger’s concepts might not hold. A dead person has no judgment over how they look or how they present themselves to the surveyor.

In conclusion, John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ is an effective lens in analyzing the poem, ‘Death of Marilyn Monroe.’ The two works of art have related views when it comes to discussing expression of self and nudity. Even though there’s a contradiction between the expression of self and nudity in the two works of art in reference to ability to determine expression, there are common grounds from which analysis can be made. In summary, therefore, the theme of nudity and sexuality is among the most prevalent issues in the poem, ‘Death of Marilyn Monroe.’

Works Cited

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Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 2008. Internet resource.

Goldstein, Laurence. The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Print.

October 07, 2021

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